PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Philadelphia officials on Tuesday defended the response to a porch fire that tore through a block of row homes, killing four young children as neighbors waited for rescuers who could douse the flames.
Emergency calls show the weekend fire spread quickly, from the first report of a burning couch just before 2:45 a.m. to an urgent second call at 2:47 a.m., when a woman said "four houses are on fire, ... please hurry."
The fire occurred in a close-knit, largely immigrant neighborhood just steps from a fire station. However, the company's engine truck — which carries hoses — was out on a car fire, so the first vehicle to arrive from that firehouse was a ladder truck at 2:49 a.m.
The first engine truck arrived with water two minutes later, according to city records. Residents, though, complained Tuesday that many more crucial minutes elapsed before any water was flowing.
"By the time the hoses were connected, all of these homes were already engulfed in flames," said Grace Young, 44, who lives across the street from where the children died, and was awakened by heat and light from the blaze. She was told help was on the way when she called 911.
Newly appointed Fire Commissioner Derrick Sawyer defended the city's response, calling firefighters human beings, not "superheroes." The unit sent to the car fire was redirected to the scene, and arrived at 2:52 a.m., according to a timeline released by the department.
"Now you're asking our heroes to be superheroes. They're human beings too," Sawyer said Tuesday at a news conference.
The neighborhood is a haven for West Africans, and the victims included families from Liberia and Sierra Leone. One Liberian family lost twin 4-year-old girls, while another lost a 4-year-old son and newborn staying in the same house as the twins.
"It's pathetic, it's pathetic, because it's happened before," said the Rev. Adolphus Capehart, referring to a nearby fire that killed seven people, including several members of the Liberian community, in 2008. "We understand that things happen, but to have all these houses in flame, and the fire department two seconds away?"
"This time around, we're not going to be silent," said Capehart, a fellow Liberian who urged the community to demand answers, but to do so peacefully. About 250 people took to the streets Monday over the fire; a few clashed with police, who were out en masse.
The fire occurred as the city's Fourth of July celebrations were winding down. Several residents said they heard firecrackers on the block that day, but officials have not yet determined the cause of the fire.
Solomon Johnson, 54, a former teacher from Sierra Leone, said the fire started in a foam-and-cloth couch on his front porch. He woke up in time to flee out the back with his brother, and said his brother went next door to help the twins' mother and her older children escape.
Johnson criticized the response time, and said he watched a lone firefighter spend several minutes struggling to open a nearby fire hydrant.
"When there's an emergency situation, one minute seems like an hour," said Sawyer.